Cord-cutters aren’t the only ones who will enjoy binging Hulu’s great original TV entertainment.
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Savvy cord-cutters know that Hulu has produced some great original movies (click here for our top picks), but the streaming service has an even stronger library of original TV shows. We’ve combed through its large and varied selection of dramas, comedies, mini-series, unscripted shows, animation, and more and can highly recommend these 10 titles, plus 10 runners-up.
10. Castle Rock
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Stephen King uber-fans Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason came up with this idea of a horror-themed soap opera set in King’s recurring fictional town. Castle Rock (2018-19) doesn’t quite snap together as smoothly as it might have, but its ambition, its great cast, and the way it weaves King lore into its narrative is quite impressive.
Here’s a taste: star Sissy Spacek appeared in the movie Carrie, based on King’s first novel; actor Bill Skarsgård very recently played the creepy Pennywise in It; Shawshank prison is mentioned; a character is related to Jack Torrance (from The Shining); ex-sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) is a recurring character in more than one King story; and a young, pre-Misery Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) even shows up. André Holland plays the main protagonist and catalyst, Henry Deaver, returning in his capacity as an attorney to his hometown for the first time in years. The wonderful Melanie Lynskey co-stars as a woman with certain—abilities.
Here’s an actual Stephen King story, based on one of his most acclaimed recent novels. The book, published in 2011, is massive, and the idea—by producer J.J. Abrams and many others—to expand the adaptation to eight, one-hour episodes was inspired. Unlike another King epic (The Dark Tower) that was turned into a truncated, very dumb movie, 11.22.63 (2016) feels fully explored and deeply satisfying. James Franco plays Jake, a divorced teacher. His ailing friend Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) shows him the closet of the local diner he owns, which somehow contains a time portal leading to a particular spot in the year 1960.
Jake agrees to take on Al’s personal vendetta, to try to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He must spend the years between 1960 and 1963 making all the right moves to be at the right place at the right time. But what will the result of his work finally be? Sarah Gadon plays a woman of the past who complicates Jake’s stay.
8. Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi (2020)
There’s no shortage of food shows wherein a host travels around, watches other chefs make things, and then tastes them on camera, making “ooh” and “yum” noises. But Padma Lakshmi is the whole package. She’s a fashion model and the author of three cookbooks; she’s good on camera, and she knows her stuff. She asks the right questions, too, as the theme of her show is exploring just what makes American food—American. And of course, most of it isn’t even American at all.
Lakshmi examines the origins of various dishes, from poke and pad Thai to kebabs and hot dogs, and does it with a little bit of sass and humor and a sense of progressiveness. This material isn’t stuffy or censored, as evidenced by some of comic Ali Wong’s comments while discussing “Chop Suey” in San Francisco. (She even lets a flirty elderly gent hold her hand.) Truthfully, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi (2020-ongoing) had me at episode one with burritos.
I had no idea what to expect pressing ‘play’ on the Canadian series Letterkenny (2016-ongoing), but it quickly elicited the biggest belly laughs I’ve experienced from any Hulu original series. Beginning as a YouTube channel, it quickly turned into a TV series, and Hulu eventually became its permanent U.S. home, hosting nine seasons and 61 episodes.
Letterkenny deals with the “problems” of a small Canadian community and focuses on siblings Wayne (creator Jared Keeso) and Katy (Michelle Mylett), who run a produce stand. Wayne’s best friends Daryl (Nathan Dales) and “Squirrelly Dan” (K. Trevor Wilson) regularly hang around, and trouble usually happens, including brief, but juggernaut bursts of violence as well as random hockey players. The delivery is so deadpan that the characters barely even move within the frame, let alone allow any expressions cross their faces. Yet the dialogue is so quick and cutting that it can knock you off balance and keep you laughing before you can recover.
Created by the Oscar-winning writer Tony McNamara (The Favourite), The Great (2020-ongoing) is another subversive period piece, more focused on sex, excess, and murder than it is on dull elegance or opulence. Elle Fanning is at her best as Catherine, the young woman who is destined to become Catherine the Great, the 18th century empress of Russia. But first she must deal with her stupid, boisterous new husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), the current ruler, and a total cad.
A naïve Catherine dreams of their first night of husband-and-wife coital bliss, but it’s a comic nightmare—Peter having a conversation about ducks with one of his entourage, who waits at the door—during his extremely brief visit to her chambers. From there it only grows worse, although the dark comedy only grows richer, as Catherine tries to assert her will and relies increasingly on desperate measures.
Of the array of comedies-of-discomfort available in the world and on Hulu specifically (Normal People, The Mindy Project, Dollface, Shrill, et al), PEN15 (2019-ongoing) is by far the cleverest, and the one that gets the most pathos from its uncomfortable situations. That’s partly because co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who are in their thirties, play themselves at age 13, in middle school.
So, there’s a surreal remove to the heartbreaking incidents, as when Maya—who ends up starting school with an unfortunate bowl haircut—is labeled as UGIS (“ugliest girl in school”), or when the friends must give up beloved childhood toys in favor of new “grown-up” things, like whippets and masturbation. The show is just weird enough to coax a few giggles, but its greatest power is that it eventually wins your heart.
4. High Fidelity
This one is mainly for romantics and record nerds, but for anyone who qualifies, High Fidelity (2020) is every bit as good as its 2000 feature film counterpart, as well as Nick Hornby’s 1995 cult-favorite novel. Co-creators Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka (Ugly Betty) had the excellent idea to replace the three white, straight guys in the original with two women of color and an LGBTQ+ character, and it works seamlessly.
Zoë Kravitz takes over as Rob (here “Robyn”), the dating train wreck and top-five list-maker who breaks the fourth wall and re-visits her failed relationships to figure out what she’s doing wrong. David H. Holmes is the nerdy “Dick” character, now Simon, who once dated Rob but came out as gay. And, brilliantly, Da’Vine Joy Randolph takes over the whirlwind Jack Black role, as Cherise, who dreams of making her own music. Filled with great songs and knowing music references, this series was sadly canceled after just 10 episodes.
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“Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show,” joked Ramy Youssef when he won a Golden Globe for his performance in a comedy television series. Also nominated for Emmy and SAG awards, Ramy (2019-ongoing) is perhaps Hulu’s best-kept secret. The title character is an American-born son of an Arab-Muslim family, living in New Jersey. In the first few minutes of the first episode, he loses his job at an internet start-up and must decide what to do with his life, who to date, and even what to eat, with his family pressuring him one way and his friends pressuring him another.
Ramy is a canny series, both funny and touching, as well as being that rare thing that manages to explore the nuances between cultures and what it means, for so many, to feel stuck in-between. And, yes, Youssef, a stand-up comic in real life, delivers an excellent performance.
One of Hulu’s earliest original series, Casual (2015-2018) is a smart, slyly funny comedy-drama that is never afraid to dig into the most awkward or challenging of arenas. Alex Cole (Tommy Dewey) has developed a successful dating app and lives in a huge house, enjoying his carefree bachelor lifestyle, even if he can’t get a match on his own creation. His sister Valerie (Michaela Watkins) moves in with him after a messy divorce, bringing her teen daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), along.
It’s a pretty simple situation that opens up all kinds of gray areas around dating, sex, and family, without the restrictions that network sitcoms once had. Nyasha Hatendi adds more hilarious layers as Leon, an early one-night stand for Valerie—and a perpetually worried, nervous soul—who becomes Alex’s reluctant best pal. Frances Conroy, Judy Greer, and Fred Melamed co-star.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale
Very few streaming series thus far have had quite the impact of this apocalyptic tale of human repression and free will. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-ongoing) dropped just months into the Trump administration, when many Americans were feeling oppressed and hopeless, and the show hit a collective raw nerve. It’s an alternate reality in which many women have become infertile.
Elisabeth Moss gives a tense, incisive performance as “Offred” (real name June), a fertile “handmaiden” forced to bear children for a wealthy family. Other insidious systems are in place to control citizens, but tentative hope rears its head, if only June can hold steady and fight for it. The series is filled with great performances, and it racked up a pile of Emmys and Golden Globes, but Ann Dowd sends a chill down the spine with her performance as the brutal Aunt Lydia, in charge of the women’s supposed well-being.
Once you’ve gorged on all of those, I think you’ll enjoy these runners-up: the Animaniacs reboot, the mini-series Catch-22, Alex Garland’s sci-fi show Devs, Dollface (with Kat Dennings), the vulgar comedy Future Man, I Love You America with Sarah Silverman, Marvel’s Runaways (teen superhero angst), The Mindy Project,Shrill (with Aidy Bryant); and the Veronica Mars reboot.
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As of 2021,Hulu’s basic pricing plan is $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year (averaging about $5 per month) with ads, or $11.99 per month without ads. (The ads are so frequent and repetitive, you’ll quickly consider upgrading.)
The special Hulu + Live TVservice, which includes dozens of other TV channels, is $64.99 per month with ads, or $70.99 without ads. Additionally, streamers can get a bundle that includes Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+, for $12.99 per month.
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